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Welcome to El Al

In 1997, friends living in Israel invited my girlfriend and me to spend a few weeks with them in Jerusalem. We flew from New York to Tel Aviv on El Al, which -- with sealed-off cockpits, armed plainclothes security agents on each plane and intense passenger interrogations -- is widely and justifiably regarded as the safest airline in the world. It will likely be emulated by American airlines in upcoming weeks.

Waiting on line at the ticket counter, we were approached by a polite young man in a blazer with serious eyes and the closely cropped hair of someone recently out of the military. He asked us for our tickets and passports and studied them intently. He asked why we were traveling to Israel. “Tourism,” we said, assuming this would be one of the three- or four-question “Have your bags been out of your sight?” interviews we were used to, and that our catchall answer would suffice.

But the questions went on. He asked us our professions. I had just quit my job, but figured unemployment might be frowned upon, so I gave him the name of the last place I had worked. He asked us where we were going to stay. With friends, we said. He asked us our friends’ names, where we had met them, how long we had known them, why they were in Israel. Those questions were easy. Then he asked us their address. We didn‘t know it. They were going to pick us up at the airport, we explained, so we hadn’t bothered to bring it. What about their phone number? The scrap of paper on which we‘d scrawled it was still sitting at home on our kitchen table, so we couldn’t tell him that either. What would we do if they didn‘t show up? he asked, reasonably enough. We shrugged, stupidly.

Unperturbed, he continued. If we were tourists, where were our guidebooks? We were counting on our friends to show us around and had little interest in Let’s Go Israel!‘s take on the Middle East. What tourist sites did we plan to visit, then? We’d been miserably remiss in our tourist duties and hadn‘t planned or researched a thing. Like struggling quiz-show contestants, we coughed and stuttered, finally alighting on an answer: “The Old City!” we almost yelled. But what in the Old City? We were stumped.

He moved on. How long had we known each other? Where had we met? Which college? What had we studied? If I had really majored in religious studies, which I had, why couldn’t I name a single religious site in the most holy city in the world? “I studied Buddhism,” I protested (another half-truth, but my classes on Western religious thought didn‘t spend much time on vacation highlights).

Apparently satisfied that we were either terrorists ourselves or innocents so moronic that we might have been easily duped into carrying a bomb, our interrogator led us through a locked door and into a tiny fluorescent-lit chamber behind the ticket counter. He left us there in the care of a small woman and a large, hirsute man, their skin pale from days spent confined in that little room. We were directed to two plastic chairs and our bags were taken behind a blue-curtained partition, where I glimpsed a full-sized X-ray machine before the partition was pulled shut.

After about 15 minutes of nervous waiting, I peeked through the gap between the curtain and the wall. All of our belongings had been removed from our bags and arrayed neatly on a table, where, under suspicion and isolated from their humble domestic contexts, each sock and tube of roll-on took on an almost supernatural air of menace. The woman passed each object individually through the machine, pausing for a good minute to pat down a jumbo bag of strawberry Twizzlers. Just before a hairy-knuckled hand abruptly pulled the curtain shut, I watched the man inspect a tube of toothpaste, squeeze out a dot and sniff at it with great curiosity and care.

I kept peeking, which bugged them enough that they let us leave, instructing us to return in an hour. We retreated to an airport bar, calmed our nerves with vodka tonics, and decided after some discussion that while we were happy, sort of, that they were being so careful, we were worried about the real terrorists who might be slipping through while they busily nibbled at our toiletries.

But all went well. They repacked our bags and got us on the plane in time. We arrived safely, stayed long enough to become thoroughly disturbed by the deformations that militarism and a security state work on a national culture, and, despite fresh Egyptian and Jordanian stamps on our passports, were allowed to fly home with only minimal interrogation by El Al security.

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